Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (2016)

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Review #63

Late one night Elizabeth Sanderson receives devastating news. Her fourteen year old son Tommy has gone missing while out with friends in the woods of a local park. As the days go by with no news and no clues as to where Tommy may have gone, Elizabeth begins experiencing odd occurrences around her home. She comes to believe that the ghost of her son may be trying to communicate with her, to help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This was yet another book that I had been waiting to read until I was on my annual camping trip. I had heard good things about author Paul Tremblay and had hopes of a creepy suspenseful ghost story to read in the woods. However, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock turned out to be more of a look at how different family members deal with grief, with a few strange happenings once in awhile. It isn’t really a “ghost” story in the classic sense of the word.

The main narrative focuses on Elizabeth and her eleven-year old daughter Kate as they navigate the increasingly fruitless attempts to find Tommy. The different ways that they deal with the frustrations, fear, and desperation come out in wildly varying ways. Elizabeth believes that she may or may not have received a vision from Tommy’s spirit, and becomes increasingly sure of that her son will not be found alive. Grace begins searching through Tommy’s things in an effort to understand the events leading up to his disappearance, and finds some disturbing sketches and diary entries made by her brother in his final days.

The second, lesser part of the plot is from the perspective of Tommy and his friends in the week before he goes missing. The boys roam the woods freely on their bicycles, eventually meeting a stranger who tells them a folktale involving a devil trapped in the rocky hills of the park. Their lives begin to spin out of control, and they attempt to form a plan that will rid them of the menace that has begun to stalk them.

This novel has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Too much of  the narrative is given over to Elizabeth staring at the phone, or off into space. The character of Grace is more compelling, but she is given little to do except go to places her mother tells her not to and listen to angsty music from the ’90s. I kept waiting for Devil’s Rock to pick up the pace and ramp up the tension but it never quite managed. The final act is also delivered in a very odd way that actually served to distance me further from Tommy and Elizabeth’s story.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

I seem to experiencing a pattern of disappointing horror novels lately. Any suggestions?

 

 

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter (2013)

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Review #62

Once a year, Scoutmaster Tim leads a troop of boys on a weekend expedition to small, uninhabited Falstaff Island, off the coast of Prince Edward Island in Canada. This year begins in a similar manner, the boys arrive and scare each other with ghost stories around a bonfire. But when a mysterious stranger turns up, pale, emaciated and desperately hungry, Tim and the boys are soon dealing with a nightmare unlike anything they could have imagined.

I had been sitting on this book for a few months, with the aim of scaring myself silly while in the forests of the Bruce Peninsula on a camping trip. I was hoping for a claustrophobic, lost in the woods against an unknown enemy kind of thriller. The Troop ended up being quite different from my expectations.

This is a novel that is dying for a longer exposition. The introduction of the mysterious stranger, which sets the plot in motion, happens a mere twenty pages into the book. This leaves almost no time for characterization or suspense to build, and instead the Scoutmaster and his troop of adolescent boys are reduced to the barest of placeholders. There’s Kent the idiotic bully. Newton the nerd. Ephraim, who has severe anger management problems. Shelley, the moon-faced sociopath. And Max, the only “normal” one out of the bunch. The boys never stray far from these one-sentence descriptions, which means that I as a reader never grew to care about any of their fates. I found myself wishing that author Nick Cutter had dedicated fifty or so pages at the beginning of The Troop to setting the scene a little more.

Cutter also seems to be one of those horror writers who equivocate loads of gory details with true suspense. There are numerous and graphic descriptions of bodies being broken open, innards exposed, spines being twisted, etc. The problem is that it never really leaves much of an impression. A truly great scary novel makes you feel as if you are right there experiencing the horrors. The Troop felt more like watching a particularly gruesome medical documentary on the Discovery Channel. It was distantly interesting, but that’s about it. Giving that these gross things are happening to a group of children, this theoretically should have upped the fear factor, but due to the aforementioned lack of characterization it still fell flat.

Overall, I was disappointed in this novel. I had been hoping for something along the lines of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, which built a creeping sense of dread by building the character’s fear along with the readers’. Instead I was left with a rather icky but ultimately dull venture into the Canadian wilderness.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Troop here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (2017)

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Review #59

When her outgoing and tenacious friend Pia suggets a river rafting trip in the isolated woods of Maine, Wini is uncertain and afraid but ultimately agrees to attend. Together with their other friends Rachel and Sandra, the four women meet up with a young man named Rory who guarantees them a rafting trip that is unforgettable and “off the grid”. But their off the grid adventure quickly becomes disastrous when the unexpected occurs.

Reading this novel, I was strongly reminded of Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film The Descent. The Descent is a film about six female cave divers who find more than they bargained for in the depths of the Appalachian caverns. It has strong similarities to The River at Night. An almost complete lack of meaningful male characters. The love/hate relationship that often exists in groups of female friends. The sense of humility that people feel when confronted with the sheer power of nature. Since The Descent is one of my all-time favorite horror films, I was immediately drawn in to the story of the four woman who venture into the wilds of Northern Maine.

There is also an element of the classic “cabin in the woods” genre. We are given numerous descriptions of the dangers of the region before the women embark on their trip. They stay at a pokey little lodge the night before their trip, and one of the women begins to feel apprehensive about their upcoming expedition. There’s even a scene with the archetypal “guardian at the gate”, in this case an overweight shirtless man and his cronies who have recently shot a deer, who warn the group to turn back, that this river “does not belong to them”. All that was missing was for one of the group members to begin making statements like “What could go wrong?” or “I’ll be right back”.

Despite all the apparent cliches, this genre has maintained its popularity because it’s really good fun. The River at Night is no exception, it promises a suspenseful and thrilling adventure in the woods and that is exactly what it delivers. I was easily drawn into Wini’s narrative. She is a woman nearing middle age who is beginning to realize that she hasn’t accomplished much with her life. Her friends are all in a similar situation, having dealt with disease, divorce, and raising children for so long that their true selves seem to have been lost in the muddle. The rafting trip represents a chance to reclaim a piece of their fearless youth, and it is only once things begin to go awry that they realize how impossible a task they had set for themselves.

Ferencik has an imperfect grasp of foreshadowing which caused me to raise an eyebrow now and then. She will make an ominous statement about future events, only for said event to occur in the following paragraph. That doesn’t exactly keep me on my toes. And some of the troubles that beset the group seemed a bit contrived. But these were minor flaws which did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Overall, The River at Night offers a fun and exciting addition to the nature thriller genre. Reading this novel felt effortless, like stepping into cool water on a hot summer’s day.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!